There’s an app for that

The New York State Bar Association has launched a new app that allows you to search and read the Ethics Opinions of the Committee on Professional Ethics.  You can find it here.

I have downloaded it to my iPhone, where it now sits directly below “Talk Penguin.”  It is sure to be a hit with the kids.


Alexander v. Cahill and Rule 7.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct

New York State’s Rules of Professional conduct contain both aspirational and mandatory dimensions.  For the most part, attorneys have accepted the imposition of the mandatory rules without challenge.  One of the problematic rules from the perspective of marketing a transactional practice is found in Rule 7.3, which essentially prohibits any form of real-time solicitation of work from potential clients unless the target is a close friend, relative, or a former or existing client.  In other words, you cannot approach someone that you know may need specific transactional services in person or over the phone and offer your services (unless you effectively already have a relationship with them).

If one considers the situation of an attorney calling an unsophisticated person who has been in an accident or inherited some money, it is not hard to understand the rationale of Rule 7.3.  However, if you consider that this rule would also prevent a tax attorney (say, me, for example) from calling the highly sophisticated CEO of a Fortune 500 company (who would almost certainly have me dumped into the voicemail of someone in the mail room), the potential for abuse is nonexistent.

Consider, then, the recent case of Alexander v. Cahill, 598 F.3d 79 (2d Cir. 2010) in which it was established that the Rules of Professional Conduct are subject to constitutional limitations established by the First Amendment.

The challenge in Alexander was focused on certain of New York Sate’s rules which became effective in 2007.  Part of the challenge was focused on restrictions on advertising content (use of nicknames and irrelevant images – think lawyers representing space aliens – in ads).  To oversimplify a bit, the Second Circuit held that: (1) attorney advertising is speech that is protected by the First Amendment; and (2) New York has an interest that is materially advanced by the challenged rules; but (3) at least with respect to certain of the advertising content rules, the rules were not narrowly tailored enough around the potential harm and as a  result were unconstitutional.

So back to the CEO that I am trying to call.  Presumably Alexander would apply to Rule 7.3.  Arguably, the application of Alexander would be, (1) that my commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment; and (2) that New York has an interest in protecting the unsophisticated tort victim; but (3) Rule 7.3 is arguably so broadly written that it is unreasonably infringing my First Amendment rights unnecessarily.  The argument would be that the Rules could easily incorporate a distinction between the solicitation of individuals or for certain kinds of representation where the possibility of abuse is relatively high (i.e. family law, personal injury claims, elder law), and therefore the rule could easily be tailored to fit the danger.

The Bar has a very strong interest in developing a more narrowly tailored rule here. While attorneys are prohibited in many circumstances from informing potential clients about the services that they provide and the relevant legal issues, the massive “consulting” industry is not.  The result is that attorneys lose work, and businesses and nonprofits are intentionally or unintentionally misled by management and transactional consultants who have only a limited understanding of the legal issues involved in their work.  From what I have seen, this phenomenon is growing and will continue to grow to the detriment of clients and the economic interests of the Bar.

In short, it is time to revisit the restrictions imposed on attorney marketing and make sure that they are only so broad as necessary to combat any potential harm.

Link Ethically

1. Would it be ethical to use a nuclear weapon, in violation of an anti-nuclear weapons pact, if you used it against a country without nuclear weapons?  This is a ramped-up version of the historical scenario discussed at this interesting blog post at Ethics for Adversaries.  A related question is whether use of the weapon would, on a gross basis, result in fewer lives loss.  Do we care if the lost lives are evenly distributed between nations?

2. Business ethics for superheros.  At the “Superheros Guide to Heroism!,” which I have so far found to be quite a brilliant blog.  To wit:

For example, if a superhero fights the head of an evil corporation, there is no conflict.  However, if that hero holds stock in a rival corporation, there’s a problem.  Are we sure the hero is fighting the corporation simply because it is evil?  Or is it possible the hero is fighting to make money?

New York State Bar Association – Committee on Professional Ethics Opinions

Here are some of the key NYSBA Committee on Professional Ethics opinions discussing the types of marketing that transactional attorneys are likely to engage in on the internet:

1. Ethics Opinion No. 848 – deals with newsletters and blog posts.

2. Ethics Opinion No. 873 – offering a prize for joining an attorney’s social networking site.   This might not be quite as sleazy as it first sounds.

3. Ethics Opinion No. 877 – permissible material on a firm’s website.

4. Ethics Opinion No. 888 – links to other businesses on law firm website.

5. Ethics Opinion No. 897 – use of “Groupon” and similar coupon opportunities.  For what type of service is this a good marketing strategy?

6. Ethics Opinion No. 899 – interaction in real-time online, as in a chatroom.

7. Ethics Opinion No. 842 – deals with storing data in the “cloud.”  Not marketing, but certainly topical.

There certainly may be others, and as I locate them I will post them.

Welcome to Think Ethically

Welcome to Think Ethically. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethical rules governing attorney marketing in New York. It’s written by attorneys trying to live by those rules (and with them) while trying to grow their practices and represent their clients. This blog will also explore the foundations of ethics in general, and will search for lessons in ethical failures in society at large.

Thanks for joining us.